Less talk and more action was a major topic of discussion at the recent special leadership meeting of the Dene Nation in Dettah, boosted primarily by Salt River First Nation Chief David Poitras.
“In the areas of treaties and Aboriginal rights, it seems like we’re coming out on the losing end because we don’t do anything,” Poitras said. “We just talk, talk, talk. We talk sovereignty, about being the landowners, about the Paulette caveat where the judge doubted if we gave away our land – we always talk about those things, but we never seem to move beyond that.”
For the Dene Nation to be an effective organization, Poitras told National Chief Bill Erasmus at the meetings on Nov. 27-29 he needs to spend more time in the NWT working on local issues, rather than traveling around the country.
“We talked a lot (at the meetings) about what the Dene Nation needs to start doing on behalf of the membership, because there are many issues and it seems that our leader is doing a lot of traveling,” Poitras told The Journal. “Devolution, we have the wildlife act that’s happening, and changes with the water boards – and our leader is pretty much gone.”
Erasmus, who was away at Assembly of First Nation meetings in Ottawa last week, was unavailable for comment as of press time.
Erasmus recently contacted the Supreme Court of Canada on behalf of the Dene Nation, asking for Chief Justice Beverley McLachlan’s guidance in addressing what he said has been a disregard for Aboriginal and treaty rights by the Canadian government.
That query was met with a reply from McLachlan’s office stating the Supreme Court could not be of assistance.
“Because it may end up in their court some day, they don’t want to comment on it,” Poitras said.
Poitras said he worries Aboriginal governments in the North are letting the federal government get away with too much. He said the time may be upon them to undertake direct action if they truly believe they are sovereign nations.
“One of the things I suggested – I didn’t really mean it literally, but I wanted to make a point – is that our treaties have won many, many court decisions, and some of them I thought we would never win. For example, hunting at night…We’ve won about 150-200 cases, and yet our treaties just don’t seem to be as strong as they once were or as they should be. So I suggested that maybe we need to start breaking some laws and challenge the government in court,” he said with a laugh.
“I laugh because how else are we going to get people to understand that we’re the original people?”
One example of disrespect at the federal level, Poitras said, is Ottawa’s recent decision to establish a Surface Rights Board in the territory. The board would have authority to render binding decisions on compensation and conditions related to access when companies with surface or subsurface rights and landowners – primarily First Nations – failed to reach a negotiated agreement.
The creation of the board was agreed upon within the three settled land claim agreements in the territory. Unsettled areas are considered Crown lands by the legislation and, as such, will not see disputes raised to the Surface Rights Board.
Consultation with Aboriginal governments with settled claims, those negotiating claims and transboundary groups with interests in the NWT were consulted throughout the development of the bill, according to Geneviève Guibert, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
“It is important to note that the ability of individuals to raise concerns regarding potentially impacted treaty or Aboriginal rights will continue to exist through the environmental assessment and permitting process,” Guibert told The Journal.
Even so, Poitras predicts changes to the regulatory system in the NWT that prevent First Nations from deciding who can have access to their lands will only result in conflict.
“If that happens, I can see blockades starting to happen up here because people are getting tired of the government bowling its way over us. And that’s strange coming from me, because I’m a pretty peaceful and quiet man. We’re being backed into a corner, I guess, is what I’m saying.”